Objectivity: Expressing or involving the use of facts without distortion by personal feelings or prejudices. (Webster)
If objectivity is to write a piece of work without distorting it with ones personal views and opinions, is it rationally ever achievable?
To be a good reporter or journalist, EJ Dionne says you must be neutral but investigative. Disengaged but be sure to have an impact on your readers. Use language that is interesting and appealing to your audience. Try and be objective.(Columbia Journalism Review). But what other implication are there when you tell someone to write but not care about what they are writing? Is telling the story of someones murder something one doesn’t care about or is in-affected by? Is writing about poverty in Mexico something that doesn’t affect you? Are child soldiers in Darfur not deserving of our concern? Is the occupation and mistreatment of innocent people in Palestine something we can be disengaged from?
As a journalist, you never write something without knowing a substansial amount about your subject. There are dozens of different kinds of stories: conflicts, reports on progress, novelty stories, disasters, human interests or just tabloid/celebrity stories. Writing each of these stories requires a significant amount of background work and research and approximately, 7 or more hours of devotion. To get a story, one must find out about those directly involved (those doing), those affected, those interested, as well as take the time out to collect statements from countless officials, experts and witnesses. When writing each story, you need details – both little and big. When reporting, one must directly answer the basic questions found in the lede of any story (who? what? when? where? why? how?) and develop from there. After doing all this research, is it rationally possible to believe that one can still retain an objective tone in their story?
Many would argue that yes, its possible. All you need to do is ensure that you make no personal investment in the story. Try not to be the focus of the story; rather try and express the story as best as possible with out being personally involved and while trying to reach the ideal of objectivity. They would also say that to be disengaged from a story doesnt mean to be passion-less about what you are writing, but to try and not let their personal beliefs color what they are writing about. As the reporter, you want the story to have an impact so the way you write should have an impact. But again, having a tone in a story, implies that you are leaning to one end of the spectrum – thus lessening the objectivity of your work. No?
To understand how objectivity is inherently not possible and thoroughly impractical in a story, consider how a news article is written. Every story consists of:
1. A lede: This is usually the opening of a story and also the most important part of a story. It gives the reader the most important and significant facts first. It does not tease the reader; rather it plainly provides the key statement that the reader needs to remember.
2. A Nutgraf: This is not an essential part of every story. In fact, its not included at all in many stories. A nutgraf complicates the story and tells the reader why they should care about the issue at hand, thus possibly making the story subjective.
3. Quotes: To give credibility to a story
4. Attribution: To give credibility to the quotes
5. Background: To better explain to the reader what happened before they read this story
6. Interpretation: A basic explanation of the events mentioned to better explain what has happened as well as to share some of the reporters personal knowledge with the reader. Bear in mind, an interpretation must be truthful but may include an opinion. Using vocabulary in this section like “angry” or “upset” or “agitated” is suggestive and implies a subjective view.
If these are the basic or even complex components of every story, then is any story objective?
Lets take a look:
(I will try and look at it from the perspective of any average reader and not a student of journalism)
This article in entitled: “Libyan War Traps Poor Immigrants at Tripoli’s Edge”. We can stop here and end the discussion by saying “Objectivity is non existent. Here is why”, but I’d like to further prove my point.
The first line (the lede) implies that the countries who are wealthy are only helping their own citizens to escape from libya at such a dangerous time – implying that either wealthy countries don’t care, or that Libya is really poor. Both of which are opinions which can be looked at as fact based on how they are stated. Also in this sentence, the writer says “little hope of escape”. Another hidden opinion with the implication that the situation there is at a standstill, possibly a loss for the people and there is not much hope for improvement.
To make the review of this article quicker, lets jump to the third paragraph. The writer describes the chickens as “scrawny” and the knife “dull”; both adjectives implying the helplessness of the situation there as well as the helplessness of the people involved.
These small and menial things prove that no matter how hard we try, there is no way anyone can be able to write or describe a situation objectively. As Michael Bugeja Journalism professor at Iowa State easily put it, “Objectivity is seeing the world as it is, now how you wish it were.”(2).
Currently, almost all journalists strive for objectivity as it is a moral and ethical issue to report what is there and what the whats actually going on in the world. There are however many journalists and media agencies that believe they have the right to tell the world what THEY think the world should hear, and with that, in the way they want their readers/viewers to see it. This kind of journalism has not ever been restricted by the government or the Federal Communications Commission. In fact, the only law that ever protected and guaranteed objectivity in the highest way possible was the Fairness Doctrine which was a law from the 1930′s – 1987 that required all reporters, especially radio and talk show hosts to give an equal amount of air time to both sides of the argument. (1). For example, when Edward R. Murrow spoke out against Senator Joseph McCarthy and his unjustified accusations of communism during the red scare where he fueled widespread paranoia and fear of communist infiltration in the US, he was required to give time to McCarthy on his show “See it now” so McCarthy would be able to respond to those accusations. This doctrine was however eliminated under the Reagan Administration by the FCC in 1987 because it was no longer considered necessary. (3).
From here on, it was decided that objectivity was good, but subjectivity was now justified with the claim that we must “Speak truth to power”. Since it is inherent that people gravitate towards opinions they already agree with, subjective journalism is usually what attracts more readers and viewers.
But the argument here isn’t which is better, objective or subjective journalism, that is for each person to decide for himself. Both are readily available – it is up to you to find the best sources. The question here is: is objectivity possible? I say no, it isnt. Even deciding to do a story on something implies an opinion on part of the journalist, but that doesnt lessen the idea that all writers should indeed be trying to be objective. Even if it cant be achieved, the people deserve to know what is right and what is out there- unveiled before their eyes to formulate their own opinions as they will.
Kinsley, Michael. “How Opinion Journalism Could Change the Face of the News. – By Michael Kinsley.” Slate Magazine. 31 Mar. 2006. Web. 2 Mar. 2011.
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